It's the middle of the night when Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) bursts into the hotel room he calls home and rousts his brother Frank (Emile Hirsch) out of bed in a sweaty, terrified panic. Jerry insists they leave town immediately, so Frank gets dressed and begins driving to the city limits, while extracting the story from his brother. On his way home following a fight with his girlfriend in which she set his pants on fire, Jerry accidentally hit a kid on a bicycle, who died on impact. Wracked with guilt, Jerry then drives off without Frank at their next pit stop, burns the car, and goes to a park to commit suicide. Instead, he chickens out and shoots himself in his amputated leg and winds up hospitalized. With Frank nursing his own wounds from a passionate relationship with Annie (Dakota Fanning), the two brothers contemplate what the future could possibly hold for two brothers who can't seem to keep their lives on track.
The Motel Life is a commendable movie, but not necessarily a satisfying one, a frustrating combination of unique style in service of open-ended or familiar ideas. Based on a novel by Willy Vlautin, adapted by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, and helmed by first-time feature directors Alan and Gabe Polsky, the film takes a refreshingly leisurely and unusual road down an uncertain path of conflict and bitterness, but fail to find much of a focus or theme on the way. At any given moment, the emotional or dramatic objectives of Polsky and the crew are frustratingly vague, and the performances by the talented cast are generally impressive but similarly lack much direction. Even as a number of admirable qualities popped up throughout the film, it becomes harder to stay engaged without any guides to follow.
The editing is the film's most interesting feature, casually drifting between past and present, filling in the blanks in Jerry and Frank's separate histories whenever it seems convenient. It's such a relaxed, "get-there-when-we-get-there" tone for the storytelling, softening the melodramatic nature of the boys' experiences to remove any sense of "big twist" or "dark secret" that so many other dramas would've gone for. Furthermore, Hirsch and Dorff remain in the moment: a painful memory of childhood may send emotional ripples into the future, but that distance is communicated through their performances. Frank drowns his sorrows in alcohol, but there's no chance they're gonna bubble back up. The wound has long scabbed over, informing his emotional state but no longer affecting it, and his behavior is as much habit as hurt.
However, a film that feels as free-form story-wise as The Motel Life needs an impressive dramatic foothold, and the screenplay lacks such a grip. Other than Jerry's accident, which directly influences far fewer of the film's events than many will expect, there's no sense of why at this moment in time and no other could these events have taken place. For instance, Jerry's accident gets him thinking about his romantic prospects, and he then expresses those fears to Frank. Later in the film, Frank decides to drive them to a neighboring town to lay low, the one where Annie happens to have moved to since she and Frank last saw each other. There's a certain push-and-pull logic to the chain of events, but each gear turns exactly once, and only to prompt the next one to turn, a series of events which does not actually form a dramatic engine. It's all how and no why, all literal motivation without thematic motivation.
Kris Kristofferson shows up in a small part as the owner of a car dealership where Frank works as a teenager, and Joshua Leonard is one of Frank's friends, a compulsive gambler who is sure he's got at least one good win in him. Kristofferson has an interesting recurring idea about living into the person you want to be, but it's never developed beyond his cursory comments, and Leonard is fun but important in a fairly superficial way. They drift in and out of the film similar to the way the story drifts in and out, or the brothers drift from town to town, giving the film its title. The Polsky's biggest stylistic contribution is a series of animated segments that assist whenever Frank tells a fantasy story to amuse Jerry. At one point, Jerry comments on how many of them are sort of misogynistic, another intriguing comment. Like too much in The Motel Life, however, the significance of this is basically ignored, and the film goes back to rambling, in its certain way.
The Motel Life arrives with a cover of familiar faces that does little to sell the moody atmosphere of the film. The back cover does a little better, with more of the snowy landscape and boxy copy that refers to the film as "searing and profound." The one-disc release comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-Ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Cinedigm's 2.39:1 1080p AVC and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 presentation of The Motel Life is very strong on both fronts. Based on the film's credits, which list "Kodak Motion Picture Film," it appears The Motel Life was shot on 35mm, and the image here does have a nice filmic grain structure. Colors are subdued but not overly processed, and blacks are inky without crushing. Sound is often very vivid and offers surprising surround activity for a film that is basically a character drama, including the ambience during a lengthy scene where Frank heads into one of Reno's crowded casinos, as well as the numerous animated fantasy sequences that take the movie well out of standard drama territory, full of cars, airplanes, explosions, and gunshots. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
A very brief making-of featurette (3:23, HD) with Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff is super-promotional, heavy on clips and light on depth. The two actors briefly discuss what they feel the story is about, what it was like to work together and with Fanning, and everyone was really great and the movie's really great and everything's really great. The other extra is an animation gallery that can be scanned through on the remote.
Trailers for The Secret Lives of Dorks and Escape From Tomorrow play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for The Motel Life is also included.
There are some interesting technical aspects of The Motel Life, but not enough pleasures or charms to merit an actual recommendation. Skip it.
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